Like You're Under Sedation: Fox's Sanitized Rocky Horror Picture Show
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again feels like a very 2016 programming choice. I can almost picture Fox executives congratulating themselves the moment they discovered this perfect material to repurpose and appeal to today’s all-inclusive, gender-fluid youth of America. What a boon it must have seemed to them, then, to place Laverne Cox – a transgender actress – in the crux of the strange and sexual goings-on as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a role originated in drag by Tim Curry.
The original Rocky Horror Picture Show is a nonsensical sci-fi musical bursting with sexuality and charged innuendo. A critical and box office failure when it premiered in 1975, it still screens in theaters today thanks to the fervent love of its misfit fans, making it the perfect mirror of its outcast characters.
Those who attend the regular midnight staging/screenings liken seeing it to losing your virginity: you always remember your first time. Maybe that’s why the remake feels like such a violation. In taking the outer space story so embraced by outer-society and repackaging it for a mainstream primetime audience, Fox not only fails to capture the original’s come-as-you-are message, but seems to advocate the opposite.
The original Frank-N-Furter’s gender is never explicitly defined. After all, the doctor is “just a sweet Transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.” Curry’s Frank is a force in fishnets, but his allure is by no means conventional, and it is most recognizable to the audience only through the admiration of his acolytes. He’s pure androgyny, nipples exposed in a bustier with nothing to boost. He’s cheekbones and jawline, curvy but sturdy, a dainty brute. His sexiness is almost sinewy. It’s hard to swallow, but that’s what makes it so delicious. That he’s able to seduce straight-laced Brad and Janet under his spell is a testament to the mysticism of his sexuality. It’s an affirmation of owning your otherness. Even the freaks and the weirdoes can get down. In fact, they’re better at it.
In the remake, however, Frank’s absence of a Y-chromosome is definitive. For her part, Cox is all leggy confidence. She commands each song with an almost domineering self-assurance. It’s hard not to be taken aback by her beauty, and that’s the problem. In the final sequence, Frank is betrayed by his doting servants. Curry, with his puff of hair matted to his face and his makeup splotchy, looks like a wet puppy made small and meek with his loss of power. In Cox’s demise, not a hair is out of place. She can play vulnerable and heartbroken, and she does quite strikingly on Orange is the New Black, but there’s no room for depth of character at today’s Frank-N-Furter castle, only vaudevillian entertainment. And Cox is so stunning it’s hard to imagine anyone kicking her out of bed. As such, her seduction of the virginal houseguests lacks, well, climax (the awkward staging and omission of racier visuals for primetime viewership doesn’t help).
This is not to say that Cox – or any actor, for that matter – needs to disclose her sexual preference or gender identity outside of the role she’s playing. It’s that, aside from a little bit of an attitude problem, there’s no barrier to entry for wanting to get into her pants. To be clear: knowing that Cox is trans does not a barrier make. But by casting today’s most famous trans actress as one of pop-culture’s most famous trans characters and acknowledging that fact only in the press campaign preceding the premiere feels like Fox trying to make a barrier where one doesn’t exist.
Frank-N-Furter isn’t the only character whose unique identity seems to be hidden in the lab with her riskier experiments. Transylvanian party guests, once a menagerie of body types and sizes, have been cleaned up, polished, and replaced by professional dancers in tailored costumes strategically torn and distressed. No longer is the Time Warp just a jump to the left and a step to the right, easy enough for anyone to stand up in the theater or living room and join in. Now you’d need at least five years of hip-hop training and stage choreography to keep up. The stark and awkward brightness that blanketed the dance hall has been dimmed, and spotlights trained on the actors as they sing each song in perfectly clean harmony (available now on iTunes!)
Restrained by the limitations of a mass audience, Fox’s remake tells us it’s great to be different, just not too different. It’s the invitation without the hospitality, asking us for dinner but telling us not to eat. The original imbued confidence in loners and freaks by celebrating the sexiness of being different. I hate to think that, in 2016, a gorgeous and confident female doctor so in charge of her own sexuality is in any way as revelatory.